For retired farmer Peter Hartridge seeing the recent whale rescue at Hamlin Bay brought back memories of the 1986 whale rescue in Augusta and believed lessons learnt had been lost throughout the years.
In March, around 150 pilot whales beached themselves in Hamelin Bay, sadly only six whales survived.
During the 1986 rescue, Mr Hartridge had a farm close to where the whales beached themselves at Scotts River and played an instrumental role in the rescue operation where 43 false killer whales were trucked 52 kilometres to Granny’s Pool in Augusta.
He said while the rescue at Granny’s Pool was well documented not many people knew what happened at Scotts River or why the whales were able to swim off.
At Scotts River, a camp was setup for the people involved in the rescue and once vets who travelled from Perth determined the whales were fairly fit it was decided to truck them to Augusta.
“It was a hell of a job to move the whales to Augusta.
“It was kind of forgotten about, and today it is still one of the most successful whale rescues. I was lucky enough to be there, we could not do much in the ocean at Scotts River and we talked about moving them to a quiet spot.
“I even had a small one in the back of my ute, since then slings have been made to help lift them which is something good that came out of it.”
Mr Hartridge said it was people’s instinct to get the whales out to sea but that was not the important thing to do if whales had beached themselves.
“By putting them in Granny’s Pool people could form a human chain around the enclosure so they could not get out, after a few hours one started to talk and swim around the pool.
“Then another one came in behind it, he yapped, eventually all 43 whales were swimming around the circle.
“When they all got going about 40 people quietly moved out of the human chain and the whales went on their way out to sea.”
Mr Hartridge said they first tried to herd the whales out to sea but they just turned around and beached themselves again, the important thing was to let the whales reform their colony.
A Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions spokesperson said there were guiding principles for how to approach such incidents, however every situation was different.
The spokesperson said DBCA staff have considerable experience with mass whale strandings including an understanding of the biology of the various species of whale that strand in WA.
“For pilot whales, a key component to the management of the stranding is to triage the animals and identify which animals are strong enough to be moved to a place away from the dead and dying animals.
“After being transported away from the place of stranding, the healthy whales are kept in a group and released together.
“Since pilot whales are social animals, groups of pilot whales were more likely to head out to the ocean than solo animals - which often re-strand.
“Where veterinarians identify animals that are dying and have little chance of survival, the most humane option is to euthanase these animals to reduce their suffering.”
During the Hamlin Bay rescue, the spokesperson said the whales were transported to a protected area which was closer to the stranding site and reduced stress on the animals.
“Transporting the animals to Granny’s Pool was considered during the recent Hamelin Bay incident and was decided against because the whales at Hamelin Bay were in very poor condition,” the spokesperson said.
“For animals that spend their lives in the water, lying on land or in the tray of a truck is extremely taxing and can lead to their death, especially if the animal is already in poor condition.
“The best outcomes are achieved by keeping the animals in water as long as possible so that they can breathe without unnecessary stress.”
The main challenge facing the whales at Hamelin Bay was that they had stranded onto rocks near the beach during the night and had spent some hours in the swell before they were discovered.
“The first reports shortly after dawn were that half of the 120 whales were already dead - and by about 10am only 16 whales were still alive.”
The spokesperson said operational and scientific knowledge of whale strandings in WA has been incorporated into incident management plans and training programs by DBCA over the years.
“Lessons learnt from mass strandings in other parts of the world have also been incorporated into the plans.
“During the recent incident at Hamelin Bay there were staff on hand with first-hand prior experience of mass strandings of pilot whales and advice was sought from other parts of the State to support the local decision-making process.
“The department relies on veterinarians and wildlife officers for advice on the welfare and condition of the animals.”
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